Paul Newman – Director

Paul Newman (January 26, 1925 – 2008)

paul newman directingI might not feel compelled to write something about Paul Newman’s intermittent career behind the camera if it weren’t for Rachel, Rachel (1968), a criminally neglected “Sixties movie” that is also Newman’s first and finest as director. I saw it in the theater all those years ago and never forgot it. And, when it finally came out on DVD, I bought it and watched it twice straight through. It’s that good.

Newman’s second feature was Sometimes a Great Notion (1970, based on the Ken Kesey novel), which is only one of two movies Newman both directed and starred in. There are terrific scenes in that film, but overall it’s the kind of highly competent but mostly  uninspired work that you would expect from a director such as Stuart Rosenberg, who – not coincidentally, I would imagine – directed Newman in Cool Hand Luke and other studio features. Harry & Son (1984) – the second Paul Newman film in which he acted – is a likable mess. And his remaining three films are stage plays turned into movies starring Joanne Woodward, which one is tempted to assume were viewed as opportunities for husband Paul to spend time with wife Joanne and to remind the world what a great actress she can be.

If you need any reminders of Woodward’s talent, you couldn’t find a better place to start than Rachel, Rachel, which also stars Woodward as Rachel Cameron, a “spinster” schoolteacher who appears utterly incapable of asserting herself emotionally or of reaching for any kind of life she wants. This has the sound of standard fare, but not the way Newman directs it (from a script by Stewart Stern based on the novel by Margaret Laurence). And I think Newman entitled the film Rachel, Rachel because half the time his camera is on Joanne Woodward and the other half it’s inside her character’s head, where a goodly amount of rich fantasizing takes place. And since this is the Sixties, after all, Rachel (both of her) ends up going on a fairly wild ride.

Rachel-Rachel-WoodwardThe movie stands on its own – Rachel, Rachel is one of the finest and most emblematic American films of the 1960s – but it is also a love letter par excellence from husband to wife. Newman can’t take his eyes off Woodward and we can’t either. Comparisons are invidious, but other performances by American actresses from the same period that I liked as much although not more include Anne Bancroft in The Pumpkin Eater (1964), Barbara Loden in Wanda (1970), and Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence (1974).

That Time Aretha Sat Down to the Piano

Aretha Franklin records in Muscle Shoals, Alabama  – January 24, 1967

No, not that time.  Yes, it was great to see Aretha perform at the most recent Kennedy Center Honors and to watch Barack and Michelle bop along. Those two have earned a fun night out if anyone in America ever has, the shit they’ve had to put up with these past nearly eight years. Although – in terms of the show itself – I could have done without all the cutaways to Carole King waving her arms and acting amazed, just amazed!

(Amazed at what, Carole, that Aretha’s still alive, still bringing it? I mean, she hasn’t been in exile in a faraway land, she didn’t just get released from stir. But I’m being petty. And I shouldn’t blame Carole. I should blame the cameraman, who I’m guessing was on loan from CBS Sports, where he’d covered archery and darts. Or the producers, who think they have to “build a narrative” for everything, so all the folks at home know what they’re watching and how they should feel about it. Will we ever again just have basic coverage of an event, of the thing itself, so we can just, like, watch it? Instead of watching people in the crowd wave their arms? And act amazed.)

No, the time Aretha sat down to the piano that I’m talking about was nearly 40 years ago, in 1967, when Aretha finally got free of Columbia and was able to sign with Atlantic Records instead. Columbia Records then was run by Mitch Miller – of insipid “Sing Along with Mitch” fame – but, at Atlantic, her producer would be Jerry Wexler. Among other things, Wexler had coined the marketing term “rhythm & blues” to replace the execrable “race music,” which had ghettoized black American composers and performers since the beginning of radio play. So there was at least a chance Aretha’s new equally-white producer would be more in tune with her than Sing-Along-with-Freaking-Mitch.

What Wexler suggested to Aretha was a session at FAME Studios in tiny Muscle Shoals, Alabama.  The recording studio – with its tremendous roster of backing musicians – had scored rhythm & blues hits for local artists such as Arthur Alexander,  Jimmy Hughes, and the Tams, but it was Wexler (and the Atlantic artists he brought in) who would help it reach the next level. If you haven’t seen the wonderful documentary about FAME Studios called Muscle Shoals (2013), treat yourself. Not the least of its many pleasures are the present-day interviews with Aretha Franklin.

muscleshoals1000v2When Aretha arrived at Muscle Shoals, what Jerry Wexler suggested she do was sit down to the piano and play. Where Columbia had cut off her gospel roots and tried to mold and popify Aretha into someone she wasn’t, Atlantic was interested in hearing what Aretha herself wanted to be. By Aretha’s own account, the music poured out of her.  They settled at the session on “I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Love You)” as her first recording in Muscle Shoals. Sadly or understandably (depending on who’s doing the telling), it would also be her last.

Something happened at that recording session – something besides the obvious thing of an incomparable artist finding her true voice – and its mostly agreed-upon lineaments include a) a horn player getting fresh with Franklin; b) her husband at the time insisting that the horn player be fired; c) the horn player being fired but that proving insufficient redress for the husband, who insists Aretha leave Muscle Shoals; and d) Aretha leaving.

I’m good with that version. Or any other version that someone cares to put forth. It’s all water under the bridge at this faint remove and, besides, FAME had done its work – or rather Aretha had been able to do her work there – and the greatest period in one of the finest careers in American music history was underway. The single recorded at Muscle Shoals became the title song of Aretha Franklin’s first album at Atlantic. And that album, among its other great songs, included covers of Otis Redding’s “Respect” – Aretha’s first monster hit – and Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.”

Chew on that last a moment.  The newly confident Aretha not only took on Otis Redding and made one of his signature songs her own – but also recorded a thrilling, hurt-you-down-to-the-bone version of Sam Cooke’s last and most personal song. Which song, by the way, just happens to be one of the greatest American protest songs ever written.

Chew on that and … so long as the cameras aren’t rolling … go ahead and wave your arms.

aretha on tour uk

Felliniesque

Federico Fellini (January 20, 1920 – October 31, 1993)

Felliniesque
/fəˈliːnɪˌɛsk/
adjective
1. referring to or reminiscent of the films of Federico Fellini.

By any measure, Italian maestro Federico Fellini was one of the greatest filmmakers who ever lived. There was never anyone like Fellini before him – or any films like his films – and I’m not holding my breath for another Fellini to come along anytime soon. The best that Fellini’s meager successors have ever managed is “Felliniesque.”

Federico Fellini, of course, is not the only film director to have his name turned into an adjective – Wellesian and Godardian come to mind – but none of the other names-turned-adjectives seem as evocative of the movies they describe. Nor is their secondary meaning (“reminiscent of”) so clearly an insult, roughly translating as  “failing to live up to the original.”

amarcord2

Movies described as Felliniesque – featuring, perhaps, a self-absorbed and self-reflective male hero in a world of Amazonian women with cartoonish boobs, random circus clowns, unexplained bursts of surrealism, and a scene toward the end on a beach – not only fall short of Fellini’s scenically but they fail altogether to capture his visual poetry.

fellini-bus-scene-8.5.pngI like some of Fellini’s movies better than others of Fellini’s movies, but criticism of them seems almost beside the point. Especially now that their orchestrator is long dead and gone to that great Criterion Collection in the sky. Fellini’s movies created a world that is recognizably our world but also other somehow, existing alongside as a kind of running poetic commentary on our world, on our experience of living in it, and of our occasional attempts (generally unsuccessful) to fashion that living into art. Not to mention that virtually any complaint against Fellini we might care to lodge has already been registered by one of his surrogate characters (usually played, sublimely, by Marcello Mastroianni).  The best example is Guido Anselmi in 81/2 (1963), who confesses: “I really have nothing to say, but I want to say it all the same.”

I’m grateful that Federico Fellini went on saying nothing for another 30 years and I’m surprised at how often I find myself returning to his later films (such as Fellini’s Roma, Amarcord, Ginger and Fred) and wishing there were more.

Fellini-Directing

The Pig from Port Arthur

Janis Joplin (January 19, 1943 – 10/4/1970)

joplin-janis-top shotAs a young teen, Janis Joplin was called “pig” because she was overweight, “pizza face” because of her acne, “freak” because she dressed different and liked the arts. It also didn’t help – in the 1950s in a place like Port Arthur, Texas – that Joplin refused to hate or hold herself apart from black people and counted some of them as friends. What is condemned in current social media as hazing and bullying would have been a good day for Janis in high school. And, in college, the frat-boy types voted her “Ugliest Man on Campus.”

Whatever all that cost Janis Joplin, she wasn’t saying, she wouldn’t give her youthful tormentors the satisfaction. She’d talk tough in interviews and act like it didn’t count. But we knew it did. We’d heard Janis sing.

And Janis Joplin wasn’t one of those ugly ducklings who became a swan. She stayed an ugly duckling in the world’s eyes and became a star. Dared us not to love her just the way she was. The way she’d always been, all the way back to Port Arthur. The way she would always be – her every gesture seemed to say – and “Fuck you, man, if you think I’m gonna change.”

Then Janis would sing.

When Janis Joplin sang, everything else went away. Her problems and your problems. Black and white. The world with its cruelty, its pat judgments of ugly duckling and swan.

And fuck you if you think it didn’t.

David Bowie Is

His body short-circuited. His body of work lives on. David Bowie is. I love his music, his changing personae, most of all his lyrics. You become a lyricist by reading, immersing yourself in words. Below is a recent list Bowie compiled of his favorite books and some photos of him reading.

David Bowie’s Favorite 100 Books

  • The Age of American Unreason, Susan Jacoby, 2008
  • The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz, 2007
  • The Coast of Utopia (trilogy), Tom Stoppard, 2007
  • Teenage: The Creation of Youth 1875-1945, Jon Savage, 2007
  • Fingersmith, Sarah Waters, 2002
  • The Trial of Henry Kissinger, Christopher Hitchens, 2001
  • Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder, Lawrence Weschler, 1997
  • A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1890-1924, Orlando Figes, 1997
  • The Insult, Rupert Thomson, 1996
  • Wonder Boys, Michael Chabon, 1995
  • The Bird Artist, Howard Norman, 1994
  • Kafka Was The Rage: A Greenwich Village Memoir, Anatole Broyard, 1993
  • Beyond the Brillo Box: The Visual Arts in Post-Historical Perspective, Arthur C. Danto, 1992
  • Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson, Camille Paglia, 1990
  • David Bomberg, Richard Cork, 1988
  • Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom, Peter Guralnick, 1986
  • The Songlines, Bruce Chatwin, 1986
  • Hawksmoor, Peter Ackroyd, 1985
  • Nowhere To Run: The Story of Soul Music, Gerri Hirshey, 1984
  • Nights at the Circus, Angela Carter, 1984
  • Money, Martin Amis, 1984
  • White Noise, Don DeLillo, 1984
  • Flaubert’s Parrot, Julian Barnes, 1984
  • The Life and Times of Little Richard, Charles White, 1984
  • A People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn, 1980
  • A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole, 1980
  • Interviews with Francis Bacon, David Sylvester, 1980
  • Darkness at Noon, Arthur Koestler, 1980
  • Earthly Powers, Anthony Burgess, 1980
  • Raw (a ‘graphix magazine’) 1980-91
  • Viz (magazine) 1979 –
  • The Gnostic Gospels, Elaine Pagels, 1979
  • Metropolitan Life, Fran Lebowitz, 1978
  • In Between the Sheets, Ian McEwan, 1978
  • Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews, ed. Malcolm Cowley, 1977
  • The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, Julian Jaynes, 1976
  • Tales of Beatnik Glory, Ed Saunders, 1975
  • Mystery Train, Greil Marcus, 1975
  • Selected Poems, Frank O’Hara, 1974
  • Before the Deluge: A Portrait of Berlin in the 1920s, Otto Friedrich, 1972
  • In Bluebeard’s Castle : Some Notes Towards the Re-definition of Culture, George Steiner, 1971
  • Octobriana and the Russian Underground, Peter Sadecky, 1971
  • The Sound of the City: The Rise of Rock and Roll, Charlie Gillete, 1970
  • The Quest For Christa T, Christa Wolf, 1968
  • Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom: The Golden Age of Rock, Nik Cohn, 1968
  • The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov, 1967
  • Journey into the Whirlwind, Eugenia Ginzburg, 1967
  • Last Exit to Brooklyn, Hubert Selby Jr. , 1966
  • In Cold Blood, Truman Capote, 1965
  • City of Night, John Rechy, 1965
  • Herzog, Saul Bellow, 1964
  • Puckoon, Spike Milligan, 1963
  • The American Way of Death, Jessica Mitford, 1963
  • The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea, Yukio Mishima, 1963
  • The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin, 1963
  • A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess, 1962
  • Inside the Whale and Other Essays, George Orwell, 1962
  • The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark, 1961
  • Private Eye (magazine) 1961 –
  • On Having No Head: Zen and the Rediscovery of the Obvious, Douglas Harding, 1961
  • Silence: Lectures and Writing, John Cage, 1961
  • Strange People, Frank Edwards, 1961
  • The Divided Self, R. D. Laing, 1960
  • All The Emperor’s Horses, David Kidd,1960
  • Billy Liar, Keith Waterhouse, 1959
  • The Leopard, Giuseppe Di Lampedusa, 1958
  • On The Road, Jack Kerouac, 1957
  • The Hidden Persuaders, Vance Packard, 1957
  • Room at the Top, John Braine, 1957
  • A Grave for a Dolphin, Alberto Denti di Pirajno, 1956
  • The Outsider, Colin Wilson, 1956
  • Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov, 1955
  • Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell, 1948
  • The Street, Ann Petry, 1946
  • Black Boy, Richard Wright, 1945
  • The Portable Dorothy Parker, Dorothy Parker, 1944
  • The Outsider, Albert Camus, 1942
  • The Day of the Locust, Nathanael West, 1939
  • The Beano, (comic) 1938 –
  • The Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell, 1937
  • Mr. Norris Changes Trains, Christopher Isherwood, 1935
  • English Journey, J.B. Priestley, 1934
  • Infants of the Spring, Wallace Thurman, 1932
  • The Bridge, Hart Crane, 1930
  • Vile Bodies, Evelyn Waugh, 1930
  • As I lay Dying, William Faulkner, 1930
  • The 42nd Parallel, John Dos Passos, 1930
  • Berlin Alexanderplatz, Alfred Döblin, 1929
  • Passing, Nella Larsen, 1929
  • Lady Chatterley’s Lover, D.H. Lawrence, 1928
  • The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1925
  • The Waste Land, T.S. Eliot, 1922
  • BLAST, ed. Wyndham Lewis, 1914-15
  • McTeague, Frank Norris, 1899
  • Transcendental Magic, Its Doctrine and Ritual, Eliphas Lévi, 1896
  • Les Chants de Maldoror, Lautréamont, 1869
  • Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert, 1856
  • Zanoni, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, 1842
  • Inferno, from the Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri, about 1308-1321
  • The Iliad, Homer, about 800 BC

On the 1st Anniversary of a Great Writer’s Death

I saw Robert Stone walking past the Beverly Wilshire Hotel one sunny afternoon, on the same day – and a few minutes after – I had spotted Michael Caine reading a book in the hotel’s bookstore. I love Michael Caine, but seeing Robert Stone was both more surprising and the bigger thrill.robert stoneThis was in the 1980s, not sure when, but Stone was already sporting the longish receding hair and full beard that characterized his dust jacket photos of the last decades. He wore a faded blue denim shirt with one shirttail out and gave the impression of being large and lumbering, although this last may have been my imagination. Or time’s rewrite. I know Stone was smiling, recalling something pleasurable, perhaps, or just enjoying the day. Or maybe he was smiling because he’d received an option check on one of his novels for a movie that never got made (more often than not, the best possible scenario for a writer whose complexities don’t translate well to the screen).

I don’t believe it entered Robert Stone’s mind that he’d be recognized – his face bore none of the caution of movie stars in public places; the tall Mr. Caine, for instance, was hunched over his reading at the end of a row – and, because I didn’t want to interrupt Stone’s enjoyment in that moment or risk his displeasure, I didn’t try to stop him and thank him. To tell him how much his books had meant to me.

There were only three (possibly four) books by that time. A Hall of Mirrors (1966), which depicted an early Sixties New Orleans of racial and religious extremes that never quite cohered as a novel but introduced that voice – precise yet poetic with slightly druggy inflections, depressed but fighting against it, continually aspiring to hope. The next book Dog Soldiers (1974) is still his finest novel and, despite having only maybe 40 pages set in Vietnam, the best book by an American on the impact of that war. Stone’s novel about a thinly disguised Nicaragua in revolution, A Flag for Sunrise (1981), is a second straight masterpiece. And it’s possible by then that Stone had published Children of Light (1986), which also doesn’t entirely come together but which contains some of the best writing anyone has done about both schizophrenia (which Stone’s mother suffered from) and the schizophrenic nature of Hollywood at the end of the 1970s.

Stone went on to write seven more books, including the much-acclaimed Israel-based novel Damascus Gate (1998) and his terrific 2007 memoir, Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties … Stone was a friend of Ken Kesey and the other Merry Pranksters and put in his time “on the bus.” Among the serious writers of his generation, Stone may have written the most and had the widest range. His novels depict not only what it felt like to be an American during his lifetime but also the effect that we Americans have had on the world at large. A handful of his contemporaries have written as well, but none with his ambition. We lost a great one a year ago today, but the books survive. Here’s the first paragraph of Dog Soldiers:

THERE WAS ONLY ONE BENCH IN THE SHADE AND CONVERSE went for it, although it was already occupied. He inspected the stone surface for unpleasant substances, found none, and sat down. Beside him he placed the oversized briefcase he had been carrying; its handle shone with the sweat of his palm. He sat facing Tu Do Street resting one hand across the case and raising the other to his forehead to check the progress of his fever. It was Converse’s nature to worry about his health.

Bad Girl from Where the Boys Are

Yvette Mimieux  (born January 8, 1942) – American Actress

yvette  in boysWhen I was a young boy, my regular babysitter – her name was Linda – had a great singing voice but a bad case of stage fright and she couldn’t manage a single note if anyone was watching her. So we’d sit in the kitchen, which was next to the basement stairs, while Linda went to the basement, put a record on the record player, turned the volume down low, and sang along.  Linda’s favorite singer was Connie Francis and her favorite Connie Francis songs were “Who’s Sorry Now?” and “Where the Boys Are,” the theme from the 1960 movie of the same name. My babysitter could sing the hell out of them.

Linda would sometimes be wiping tears when she came back upstairs. Which made sense to my Midwestern parents and their friends in the kitchen: the songs Linda sang were sad. If she’d just finished “Where the Boys Are,” Linda would catch my eye and wink. The wink was because we had a secret and it was my reminder not to tell.  But I also thought  – in my child mind – that she winked at me because I knew the real reason Linda was crying. It had to do with Yvette Mimieux, an actress in the film Where the Boys Are (1960). Yvette Mimieux is 74 today.

Linda sat for me a lot and did things my parents would not have liked. She stole liquor from their liquor bottles, had a boyfriend over for a makeout session on the living room couch (while I watched with inchoate jealousy from the hall), and – on more than one occasion – took me to movies I was “too young” to see. All of which means, I guess, she was a bad babysitter – irresponsible, a terrible influence – but I thought she hung the moon. And I’d never have told on her even if she hadn’t bribed me with quarters, made me promise, winked. Linda’s secrets were safe with me.

where the boys are carOne of the movies Linda shouldn’t have taken me to – and our “secret” – was Where the Boys Are, which tells the story of four Midwestern college girls who go to Fort Lauderdale for spring break in pursuit of romance, fun, and sun. It was a popular coming-of-age film for the babysitters of Laura’s generation and it was the movie – for good or ill, mostly ill – that cemented Florida as a spring-break destination for generations of college students to come. In addition to Mimieux, it starred Connie Francis, Paula Prentiss, and – in the lead role – Dolores Hart, a wonderful actress who quit movies soon after to become a Benedictine nun.  I watched Where the Boys Are again not too long ago and it is a surprisingly good movie. Corny in spots, craven by the end, but well-acted, engaging, and daring for the time in its depiction of youthful sexual mores. My childhood memories of the movie were of young people who seemed only a little older than Linda doing a lot of drinking and kissing. I also remember Linda crying through some of the scenes with Melanie, the character played by Yvette Mimieux.

A quick plot summary. In the movie, back in college, there had been some brave talk – led by future nun Hart – about how young women (like the guys) should experiment with sex prior to marriage. The other three friends seem to agree, but the characters played by Connie Francis, Paula Prentiss, and even Hart return from Florida virgo intacto and it’s only Melanie who takes the bait. She sleeps with her slick Ivy League spring-break fling, truly believes they are madly in love, but finds out different when she goes to a party and is raped by one of his friends. Melanie/Mimieux ends up in the hospital after wandering into the road and being struck by a car. And her three friends come to rue the error of their thoughts. But all that sex talk – and some of the later scenes – pushed the 1960 envelope, which was still more Fifties than Sixties.

yvette in LightA brief bio. Yvette Mimieux was perfect in Where the Boys Are and quite good with Olivia de Havilland and opposite George Hamilton in Guy Green’s Light in the Piazza, but most film buffs will remember her as Rod Taylor’s Eloi love interest, Weena, in George Pal’s version of The Time Machine (1960). She starred or costarred in another ten or so studio films – mostly in the 1960s – followed by TV work and  retirement at the age of 50 to concentrate on her successful business interests. Mimieux grew up in Hollywood and went to Hollywood High. Her first husband was the film director, Stanley Donen.

Linda stopped being my babysitter when I stopped needing one, but our families stayed friends and I would talk to her occasionally.  The last time I remember seeing Linda was at her wedding, a few years later. She was five months pregnant and her father got drunk and refused to dance with her, an act for which I will never forgive him. That was also the last time I saw Linda wiping away tears.

New Year’s Eve Safety Tips

picked up from The Movies.

  • Don’t forget to eat,  your dinner rolls will dance (The Gold Rush, 1925)
  • Don’t accept a party invitation from an aging movie queen, you’ll be the only guest and things could get sticky (Sunset Blvd., 1950)
  • Don’t try to spend it with your married boyfriend, he’ll leave early to be with his wife and you’ll be depressed (The Apartment, 1960)
  • Don’t go cheating on your husband, even if you’re a porn star (Boogie Nights, 1997)
  • Don’t underestimate guerrillas or ever betray your brother (The Godfather Part II, 1974)
  • Don’t – whatever else you do – spend it on an ocean liner (The Poseidon Adventure, 1972)

Oh, and – even though I couldn’t find a movie scene about it – don’t drink and drive. Happy New Year!

Varese’s “Organized Sound”

Edgard Varese (December 22, 1883 – November 6, 1965)

varese against black

Avant-garde French composer Edgard Varese left behind only about three hours of finished music … approximately five seconds of which could be considered melody … but they might well be the most influential three hours in music history, inspiring everything and everyone from electronic music and jazz fusion to Babbitt, Cage, Frank Zappa, and John Zorn.

Varese immigrated to the United States in 1915  – two years after the Paris debut of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring – and took up with other French expatriate avant-garde figures such as Marcel Duchamp and Francis Picabia. It was Varese’s intent as a maker of music to “let in all sounds, sounds which up to now—and even today—have been called noises.”

He achieved this goal in a series of unique, surprisingly popular compositions beginning with Amériques for large orchestra in 1921 and concluding with Poème électronique for electronic tape in 1958. He eschewed the term “music” for his work, preferring “organized sound.”

The record label Varese Sarabande, which was formed in 1978 and is now dedicated to film scores and cast albums, was named after him.